Young refugees recount their arrival in Australia, where they have become community leaders


Nayran Tabiei, of Syrian origin, arrived nine years ago with her husband and daughter on Christmas Island after a boat trip through shark infested seas.

“We jumped without thinking. ISIS behind you and the water in front of you, she said.

It was a relief to be out of Syria, but the Australian immigrant detention center on Christmas Island was tough – rooms were cramped and missing meal times meant going without food.

After a year in immigrant detention, Ms Tabiei made her living in Melbourne, where she constantly gives back to her community.

On Wednesday last week, she was recognized for her contribution to the Victorian Multicultural Commission Refugee Awards.

Nayran Tabiei, of Syrian origin, teaches refugees to swim and speak English.(

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When she arrived in Australia, Ms Tabiei desperately wanted to work and study to support her daughter in Melbourne and her three sons, whom she had left with their grandmother in Iran, but her transition visa prevented her from doing so.

Instead, the former chef devoted all of her time to volunteering – mainly teaching English and cooking for the homeless, refugees or the elderly.

After three years, she finally got a temporary protection visa, which gave her some additional freedoms.

Today, she works for the community organization commUnity +, teaches English to refugees and gives swimming lessons to migrant women.

“I like helping people, empowering women to stand up,” she said.

Ms. Tabiei also supports people with mental health issues and disabilities, coming to their homes to cook and keep them company.

Even though she can work now, she feels stuck in limbo. Her the temporary protection visa does not allow him to bring his sons, whom she has not seen since arriving in Australia.

Ms Tabiei said she had “knocked on every door” trying to gain permanent residence, calling and emailing MPs asking for help.

While being recognized for her work in the community was nice, she said, she couldn’t bring her awards to the Immigration Department to support her application for permanent residence.

“I want this paper, buy a house or buy a business, because I want to open my cafe, my restaurant – whatever is in my name, to present myself as a person,” she said.

‘I’m someone who didn’t know much English’

Ku Htee, 21, spent the first 15 years of his life in a refugee camp in Thailand.

There was no electricity and living in the camp was “like a prison,” she said.

“You couldn’t get out of the camp. If the Thai soldier caught you, you would probably go to jail,” she said.

Ms. Htee’s family had little money. Her parents were members of the Karen community in Myanmar and had fled the Thai border during the civil war.

Paw Ku Htee poses for a photo, wearing a white shirt with a red lining.
Ku Htee was born in a refugee camp and now supports the Karen community in Bendigo. (

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Her family boarded a plane to Australia in 2015. When she started school, she was confused about different rules, such as not being able to go home for lunch.

“You had to stay in school all day. I never had that experience at camp,” she said.

Ms. Htee knew little English, so school in a new country was a big adjustment. But she graduated in grade 12 in 2019 from Bendigo Senior Secondary College.

She now works for Bendigo Community Health Services, where she helps the large Karen community of Bendigo adjust to life in Australia and prepare for emergencies, such as bushfires and floods.

“I’m someone who didn’t know much English, who needed a lot of help to feel confident, to interact with people and to get to know the services better,” she said.

Ms. Htee received the Young Leader Award at the Refugee Awards for her work in favor of the Karen community.

She has played a key role in providing support to the Bendigo Community Health Services COVID-19 hotline, to help the Karen community make vaccine appointments and understand COVID-19 health advice.

“A lot of people have been vaccinated in the last few months, so we have done a good job,” she said.

One day she wants to become a nurse. She hopes that through this she can continue to help diverse communities, as a person who can relate to the struggles to build a new life from scratch.

“They are the community of people that I really enjoy working with.”

“It’s an incredible trip”

When COVID-19 hit Australia, the leader of the Heidelberg Mosque youth group Yusuf Lebanon faced a new challenge: helping his community respond to the pandemic.

People knew him around the mosque and trusted him, so the 24-year-old worked with the mosque to develop a COVID security plan and set up QR codes for contact tracing.

Like Ms. Htee, Mr. Liban, of Somali descent, received the Young Leader Award on Wednesday for his work in support of multicultural communities in Australia.

Yusuf Liban sits at a restaurant table, smiling for the camera.
Yusuf Liban, born in Somalia, is a youth group leader at the Heidelberg Mosque and supports Afghan refugees in quarantine at the hotel.(

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When Mr. Liban was five years old, he came with his mother and eight siblings to Australia as a refugee. His parents wanted him and his siblings to get a better education.

“It’s an incredible trip, and I’m very honored to have taken this trip,” he said of his time in Australia.

In addition to his work supporting the local Muslim community during the pandemic, he also played a key role in the COVID Quarantine Victoria (CQV) program to support people arriving in hotel quarantine, especially Afghan refugees.

“Some of them came with the clothes on their backs, I’m talking shirt, sweater, pants and nothing else,” he said.

“It has been an honor to work alongside the incredible CQV team.”

In this role, he liaised with the interpreters to ensure that multicultural communities could get the information and support they needed.

Fluent in Arabic and Somali, her language skills have been helpful in building trust and communicating with people.

Mr. Liban also took it upon himself to procure prayer rugs and Korans for Muslims quarantined in hotels, as well as culturally safe food.

“Halal food is not just halal food – there is halal food from the African continent, halal food from the Asian continent and halal food from the western continents,” he said.

In addition to his work with the mosque and the CQV, Mr. Liban strives to help the multicultural community celebrate their “creative excellence” through fashion.

He is working with the City of Melbourne to create a fashion show for Melbourne Fashion Week, showcasing clothing that appeals to the sensibilities of Muslim women.

“It’s about helping the multicultural community and saying, ‘Hey, it’s good to pursue a creative career, like I did,'” he said.

Lebanon said Australia still had a long way to go to support its multicultural communities, but saw progress being made.


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